Opposition to a draft United Nations resolution that gives sweeping powers to the United States and Britain to rule Iraq and take control of its oil revenues melted away last night, opening the door to its adoption by the Security Council in a vote scheduled to take place this morning.
The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, confirmed last night that Paris, along with Moscow and Berlin, had agreed to support the resolution after America accepted a number of concessions to give the UN a slightly more important role in Iraq.
"We have decided to vote for this resolution and to work toward a consensus within the Security Council," M. de Villepin told reporters at a joint press conference flanked by his Russian and German counterparts, Igor Ivanov and Joschka Fischer.
He said the three countries had agreed to vote in favour, "even if this text does not go as far as we would like". The change of heart, he conceded, came after it became clear that the US, Britain and Spain, the sponsors of the resolution, "have listened to their partners" in the Security Council.
The concessions include giving a more elevated status to a special UN representative who will be appointed to help the occupying powers set up a government in Iraq, and extending for six months UN involvement in the spending of Iraq's oil revenues. The text will none the less give Britain and the US the legal cover they were seeking to take control of the country for at least a year.
Nato agreed meanwhile to start helping Poland's plans to lead a multinational peace-keeping force in Iraq, burying some of the deep divisions that split the alliance in the run-up to the war. France and Germany approved yesterday's move, which allows for small-scale technical assistance, but could also be the prelude to a wider peace-keeping role for Nato in Iraq.
The alliance's military planners will attend a meeting of about 10 nations in Warsaw today and tomorrow, at which the Poles will try to raise the 7,000 troops they need for the sector they have been assigned in southern and central Iraq.
Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to Nato, described the decision as "a big step forward" and argued that the move puts the alliance "squarely in the mix in Iraq".
Just weeks before the start of hostilities the alliance was plunged into one of the most acrimonious rows in its history when France, Germany and Belgium delayed a decision to send defensive units to protect Turkey against possible military attacks from Iraq. The anti-war camp argued that the move would have made war seem inevitable, and France ultimately refused to sign up.
But the ease of yesterday's discussion is also an indication of improved relations, as diplomats in New York inch towards agreement on a UN Security Council resolution to formalise American and British control of Iraq until an internationally-recognised government is formed there. Several countries could have raised objections to the Polish request on the basis that no UN Security Council resolution had been agreed. But one Nato diplomat said: "no ideological objection has come into the picture".
French diplomats said Paris had no objection to authorising help for the Poles, which is expected to involve setting up a headquarters and co-ordinating intelligence sharing, communications and transport.
But the alliance will not be able to provide troops on the ground and Poland remains well short of the 7,000 it needs to muster. Warsaw is expected to provide 2,200 soldiers and Bulgaria will contribute 450.
* Tony Blair has been warned by the Attorney General that the continued British and American occupation of Iraq could be ruled illegal under international law unless it was approved by the Security Council. Lord Goldsmith warns that the occupying powers should not attempt wide-ranging reforms of the country's administration, judicial system or status of its public officials.